WEST JORDAN — The group of Utah firefighters dispatched to help with Hurricane Laura rescue efforts had made it to Texas Thursday night and were awaiting an assignment from local emergency responders.
Shortly before midnight Wednesday, 80 members of Unified Fire’s Task Force One left West Jordan for Louisiana. As they began a non-stop drive southeast, the Category 4 hurricane barreled toward the coast, with forecasters predicting a possible 20-foot storm surge.
Laura came ashore in the early hours of Thursday and has since been downgraded to a tropical storm, but rescue crews are desperate for support and help as they search for anyone who didn’t evacuate and who may now be stranded.
“FEMA reached out to us (as) Utah has some of 28 urban search and rescue teams,” said Unified Fire assistant chief Riley Pilgrim before the team hit the road. “We can deploy up to 90 people, and we will respond to natural disasters, such as a hurricane. We’ll go out there with a full complement of tools and equipment. We have boats, water rescue capabilities, medical training, and we basically go out there to support the local responders, and then we step in if they become overwhelmed and start facilitating more advanced rescues and other operations like that.”
Riley said they’d avoid staging in the hardest hit areas, and as of Thursday evening, the group decided to stay in Amarillo, Texas, for the night.
A caravan of two 53-foot semi-tractor trailers, two box trucks and 10 UTA vans drove from West Jordan to Amarillo, according to Unified Fire’s Wade Russell, who is the Task Force One leader.
“We drove non-stop until we got here about 4 o’clock,” Russell said. “Traveling is quite a process for us” because of the equipment they’re moving, he noted.
He said it looks like they may be needed in the eastern area of Louisiana, but they won’t get their actual assignment until Friday morning.
“What we’re hearing is there will be a need to do what we call wide-area search areas,” Russell said. “That’s where we make sure structures are clear, and if they’re not, we rescue anyone who is stranded. We have the ability to help local (rescuers), and they’re just taxed.”
He said the team hasn’t gotten a lot of information as they’ve traveled, but news reports indicate more than 800,000 people in Louisiana and Texas are without power and at least six confirmed deaths related to the storm.
Russell said Task Force One is anxious to help in whatever way is needed.
“We should have more definitive orders tomorrow,” he said.
The group is made up of firefighters, paramedics and engineers from around the state.
“I think one thing that’s really important to share is this isn’t just a Unified Fire Authority operation,” Pilgrim said. “We have fire departments from West Jordan, Park City, Draper City, Salt Lake City, West Valley and South Jordan, as well as a few affiliates that are civilian based, like doctors and engineers. And we take a bunch of different members from all these departments that complement this 80-person team so we can go support our partners out in Louisiana, while maintaining the same level of service here.”